Employee Development as a Process of Behavior Change

What do executive coaching, employee development, and 360 feedback have in common?  They all work to encourage change.  And the techniques that support processes like the ones above are most effective when they are based on established theories of behavioral change.  The purpose of this blog is to present Prochaska’s widely accepted model of change and to shed some light on why you have to fill out that individual development report or set performance objectives.  Interestingly enough, organizational research looking at behavioral change has its roots in addiction research, which is among the most prominent fields of study on human change.

The process of change includes the following five stages:


1.  Pre-Contemplation

In this first stage people have no desire or intention to change.  If a person in this stage is pressured to change their performance or behavior (e.g., by their boss), they might demonstrate change but will immediately go back to their old ways of doing things the second the external pressure is off.

  • Helpful Actions:  At this stage, pushing an employee to change his or her behavior too much can actually cause more harm than good.  If the employee him/herself does not see the need to change, chances are that nobody else can change their mind.
  • “I am a good employee and I perform well, so why would I want to sign up for the new mentoring program?” 

2.  Contemplation

In this stage, people know where they want to go (e.g., improve some aspect of performance) but are not ready to take action.  In this stage, people seriously consider their change, weighing the advantages against the costs of time and energy.  Of the first four stages, this one can last the longest.  For example, people who make the same New Year Resolution every year take an average of 5 years to maintain the resolution for longer than 6 months! (Norcross & Vangarelli, 1989)

  • Helpful Actions:  Contemplation can be triggered by events that increase a person’s awareness of their current state of performance or behavior.  Too much of a shock can have the opposite effect, so it’s important to give encouragement and describe the positive impact that the change will have in the workplace
  • For example:  Rick, who leads a group of 15, was recently given 360 feedback.  What stood out were the low ratings his direct reports gave him on performance feedback.  Rick was already aware that he needed to do it and is now painfully aware that he needs to crack down and give some tough feedback to a few of his employees.  Yet, Rick avoids it because of how uncomfortable it makes him feel.  He knows he should work on this problem, but has yet to take action.  Without coaching or some external shove, he could remain stuck in this stage for years!

3.  Preparation

In this stage, people are focused on the end goal and have begun taking steps towards changing their behavior or improving their performance.  Some steps are typically more effective than others in getting the individual closer to their end goal.

  • Helpful Actions:  Establish a good developmental plan that combines small, doable action steps with intent to lay the groundwork for making larger changes.  This is the small wins/losses stage.
  • Using the previous example:  In this stage, Rick has used his 360 feedback to create an individual development plan outlining how he will become a better leader by giving regular performance feedback to his employees.  Rick has a great executive coach, so when they created his action plan, they started with small and easy goals that were specific and measurable.  One action was to identify and write one piece of feedback, no longer than a sentence, for one of his employees at the end of every day.  Another action was to give developmental feedback to 2-3 trusted friends outside of work over the next two weeks.  Rick has done well identifying feedback, but has had trouble giving feedback to his friends.

4.  Action

This stage involves modifying the behaviors or performance to acceptable levels.  In terms of a developmental plan, this stage occurs as action plans are being followed and the performance objectives are met.  Of all the stages, this one requires the greatest commitment of time and energy.

  • Helpful Actions:  Social support, encouragement, recognition, immediate feedback, and having access to the necessary resources are crucial for success in this stage (to learn more about giving effective feedback, click here)
  • Rick has been working through the SMART goals identified in his development plan and has finally met his objectives – to give weekly feedback to each of his employees and to follow through on giving the tough developmental feedback to the few under-performers on his team.  It has been a lot of work, but his coach has helped him define the path, while his employees and his boss have noticed his improvement.

5.  Maintenance

The final stage involves maintaining the improved performance or changed behavior.  Maintenance is not static however; it is a continuation of the change.  Part of maintenance involves ‘relapse,’ or falling back into their old ways of performing tasks or managing employees.

  • Helpful Actions:  Practice, encouragement, accountability, recognition, reward, and alignment with existing performance evaluation processes all can help changes “stick.”
  • Rick and his boss met to update his formal roles and responsibilities to include giving regular real-time performance feedback to employees, and he has continued to meet those expectations for the most part, but still slips into his old ways every once and a while when he is under stress (to learn more about workplace stress & burnout, click here)

One final important note about the five stages of change is that they do not happen in a linear fashion.  Rather, progress is more spiral-shaped, as people go back and forth, succeed and fail, etc.  Employee development and performance management are inextricably tied to this process, so one of the best things we can do to encourage growth and performance improvement is to understand these five stages and provide the right kind of support at the right time.

Scontrino-Powell

Source: Prochaska, J. O., DiClemente, C. C., and Norcross, J. C. (1992). In search of how people change: Applications to addictive behaviors. American Psychologist, 47, 1100-1114.

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